Netflix’s Aggretsuko is at its best when it hits close to home. And the show’s fourth season hasn’t just struck close to home for me — it has my address and is banging on the door.
Aggretsuko is a charming slice-of-life anime, following a mild-mannered red panda named Retsuko with a secret passion for death metal as she goes through the ups and downs of being a mid-20s office worker. But while previous seasons had me invested in the inner workings of Retsuko’s love life and personal fulfillment, this season sparked a passionate engrossment in the inner workings of Retsuko’s workplace — and inspired me to pen this call to action.
(Though don’t get me wrong — I am still very invested in Retsuko’s dating life).
[Ed. note: This essay contains spoilers for season 4 of Aggretsuko]
As in previous seasons, the conflicts of Retsuko’s inner life are augmented by external issues — and in this case, it is the company passing hands to a new CEO, bent on making changes. And by changes, he means cuts in order to make the company more profitable. Retsuko’s manager, the old-fashioned and stubborn Director Ton, refuses to nominate anyone to be cut, saying that the company has weathered worse and taken care of its own.
The workers are understandably anxious. This intensifies when Ton is reassigned to a different department, one specifically designed to be a dead-end so that management can get rid of him. A new manager comes in and immediately starts putting pressure on the department. Chatterbox Kabae immediately becomes the prime target — as a mother, she has to balance caring for her young kids and her responsibilities, and even though she always gets her work done, she gets put on probation. When she has to leave work to pick up her sick son from daycare, the new manager not-so-subtly suggests that she prioritize work over her family. Retsuko and the rest of the accounting department offer to take over her work, but the new manager still is not pleased.
Afterwards, Retsuko and her friends all reconvene in the break area, shaken about the possibility of downsizing their department. They wonder why Kabae specifically has been targeted, especially when despite her frequent gossiping she is a good worker. Fresh graduate Anai gets particularly riled, saying that they ought to do something about the injustices. Retsuko’s friend (and love interest) Haida, however, expresses resignation to the situation, feeling like it’s out of his hands.
A good portion of Aggretsuko has always been focused on Retsuko’s worklife. The first season dealt a lot with her feeling jaded towards her job and frustrated with Director Ton’s frankly rude treatment, while season 2 juggled exasperating co-workers. Seeing the characters commiserate about workplace politics isn’t atypical, but with the fate of their jobs in the air for once, the stakes are more dire than just dealing with a gossipy deskmate. None of them are happy about this situation, and the main takeaway seems to be that they can’t really do anything about it.
But that’s where they’re wrong! It’s time for collective action! Unionize your workplace! Stand together against unjust layoffs, fight against workplace discrimination, and rally as one!
Now, I do recognize that the show (1) takes place in Japan, where, as the characters explain, workplace laws are very different (for instance, it’s nearly impossible to lay anyone off directly, so management ends up encouraging workers to resign instead); (2) follows an accounting department, a career path I know little about; and (3) is about talking animals, so my specific experiences are not necessarily applicable. But watching the workers receive unfair treatment — especially poor Kabae, who is denied time off to take care of her sick child, and told that she may want to consider being a stay-at-home parent if she cannot prioritize work over her family — lit a spark in me and made me super thankful for my own workplace union.
Even the most well-intentioned workplaces can benefit from unions. As I’ve learned over the years, no matter how good the intent, there are just some things management is not aware of. The situation in Aggretsuko is obviously not going to one-to-one reflect real life experiences — especially for audiences in the United States — but seeing this injustice pan out might just spark enough recognition to similar situations. And unlike what Haida says there is something we can all do about these unfair workplace circumstances.
Every season of Aggretsuko introduces huge life changes for Retsuko — be it becoming a pop star idol or dating a millionaire — but by the time each season ends, Retsuko ends up in the same place as before, though with a newfound understanding of herself and what she deems important in life. Season 4 pans out similarly: Retsuko and Haida’s relationship gets thrown on the rocks for a moment, as he gets bumped up to management and believes he’s doing right by his coworkers by doing all the sketchy white-collar crimes that the CEO asks, but by the end, the old CEO returns and Ton and Kabae return to work and even though Haida quits his job, he and Retsuko’s relationship has grown stronger.
This resolution all comes after Retsuko and her friends band together. They don’t unionize, but they do organize employees, former and current, to gather enough evidence of workplace fraud so that they can bring down the CEO. And because this is a show where romantic conflict is regularly solved with the power of death metal, that means organizing a workplace heist where Retsuko’s former idol band members distract Haida so that Kabae can crawl through the vents and steal his flash drive, while other coworkers learn his password so they can hack his files. Retusko’s big takeaway of this season is more about finding connection in a busy world, but I think a workplace heist designed to bring fairness for all workers speaks to the power of collective action.
The best part of Aggretsuko is often how relatable it is, even amidst some of the more outlandish plotlines. The show excels when it balances the wild scenarios (workplace heists, pop idol fame, dating a millionaire, etc) with more specific and relatable situations. Each season has moments that strike so close to my own life, that I sometimes bristle at how uncanny it can be, even if I know these are experiences that thousands of others in the mid-20s working office jobs go through. It’s cathartic to watch them play out in this world of talking animals, and to see Retsuko walk away from these situations with more insight on her own life.
Season 4 upped the ante, and filled me with righteous fury as I watched the accounting department fret about the future of their jobs. Aggretsuko can be stressful, but there is a comfort in knowing that no matter what our plucky red panda heroine goes through, she comes out stronger and more resilient, with friends who care about her, and, apparently, a workplace that rallies together for one another.
Aggretsuko season 4 is available to stream on Netflix.